Community looks for answers
In grief and dismay over the most recent death of a young person in the community, 35 island residents gathered at the Harbor Church at the invitation of Rev. Stephen Hollaway. Hollaway had asked for a “conversation on the young adult crisis” on island, hoping to find some answers to the troubling series of deaths of young people, whether those deaths were “from drugs or alcohol, whether in accidents or by suicide,” he said.
Over two wrenching hours, the group wrestled with a wide range of topics, from the presence of heroin on the island, to prescription drug abuse, to mental illness, while also struggling to understand how the community might come up with solutions. This first session was designed to identify areas of concern, and followup meetings will define how to take action.
With islanders seated around a long table, Hollaway first distributed a list of topics, brainstormed under the title of “Possible Contributing Factors to the Deaths of Young Adults by Substance Abuse or Suicide.”
Listed among these were: the culture of denial, self-medication for depression or anxiety, parents not talking about drug use because of their own, social isolation, young adult denial of death, Block Island “tribalism” (protecting our own, even from authorities), permissive culture regarding youth and substances and others. Hollaway, who said he compiled the list with the assistance of community leaders, asked the group to think about those that were most relevant.
Tired of denial
Hollaway then opened the discussion by addressing the group candidly: “The public has a right to know that criminal activity is going on here on the island. There’s heroin on the island, and I’m really tired of the attitude that nothing’s happening,” he said.
Elizabeth Holmes, who has been living on the island for close to a year (but has been coming to the island for more than 18 years) was friends with Gregor Smith, his brother Ben and their contemporaries for close to a decade. Admitting to emotional burn-out over many friends dying “in New York, Boston and here,” she said emphatically, “I’m done with it.”
Addressing parents, she said, “It’s not a parent issue; it’s a community issue.” She added, “No matter how good you are as a parent, your kids are still going to get involved in drugs. They’re still out there. They’re still going to be accessible.” In the end, Holmes said it must be a community decision: “Can we come together to say ‘This is not OK!’? And then try to rectify the situation.”
Maryann Simonelli spoke as the mother whose son was “a good friend of Gregor’s.” She hoped the community could find “a way to do something, because I can’t bear to watch my son just accept the inevitability of death at a young age.”
Prevention Task Force member Mimi Leveille said, “I am thankful to Bob and Kathryn [Smith] for their openness. Anyone can become addicted to drugs — there’s something in our physical make-up. However, it’s not only a problem for young people, but with older ones as well.” Robert Ellis Smith, father to Gregor, was present at the meeting.
Harbor Church secretary Barbara Temple acknowledged that “all of the males in my family were alcoholics and my brother died” as a result. She identified the “general aimlessness of young adults without career possibilities or goals” as a factor contributing to substance abuse on the island.
Betty and Fraser Lang, publishers of The Block Island Times were involved for years in publishing in the mental health field.
Fraser Lang struck a chord when he said that drug abuse was not a “moral failing.”
Agreeing that the community had not adequately come to terms with the pervasiveness of substance abuse here, Town Manager Nancy Dodge said “Addiction is a disease and an insidious one.”
Vickie Carson, a health teacher at the Block Island School (BIS) and island resident, was deeply troubled and puzzled about “what to do to help our young people understand the repercussions of drug abuse.” Part of the difficulty, she thought, was “getting through the shame and embarrassment” of dealing with issues of mental illness and drug abuse.
In the criss-cross of discussion, several people identified the issue as a community issue and said it would have been better to have reported that something was going on, that Gregor Smith needed help, even if it had landed him in jail; then he might still have been alive.
Allison Marcotrigiano, another member of the Prevention Task Force said, “It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how many people my age are abusing substances. It’s sad to watch people my age pass — not to live out their entire lives and live up to their potential.” By getting together, she said, “we can come up with some ideas to help.”
Jane Hopkins, a close friend of Gregor’s mother, Kathryn Ritter-Smith, wanted to share Kathryn’s “mantra” since the loss of her son: “Better jail than the cemetery.”
Mental health, prescription drugs and alcohol
On the accessibility of prescription drugs, Police Chief Vincent Carlone said, “Pills [are] an epidemic beyond what we’ve ever seen. No longer is it hard to access drugs.” Socha Cohen, member of the MHTF, thought that group might take the lead in educating the public. Block Island Health Center (BIHS) Nurse Practitioner Liz Dyer said, “There may never be an answer. Prescription drug abuse is rampant in Rhode Island.”
MHTF case worker Tracy Fredericks thought the most significant item on the list was “The stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment or substance counseling.”
A half-year island resident Elspeth Crawford, lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, said though professionally concerned, she had “a deeper personal interest” because she had a family member with “bi-polar illness.” She found social isolation and stigma as important contributing factors.
Longtime resident Mary Donnelly, a registered nurse, agreed there was “a certain amount of tribalism involved here, but we’re not doing any good by it. Alcoholism is a terrible disease. In sponsoring an alcoholic, there is a culture of denial: they’ll tell you anything. They’re very sly, very smart and very deadly.” She said she admired Gregor’s parents for their candor in the obituary.
Mental health task force member Beth Tengwall agreed that “denial by society and families” was a key factor “in the issues of mental health and substance abuse.”
A student assistant counselor at the Block Island School, Shannon Morgan said her concern was for the youth of the island. She added, “I’m glad we’re having this conversation and believe it needs to continue.” Lynn Fletcher said she has mental illness and addiction problems in her family, and she attributed ongoing symptoms to an “easy access to chemicals.”
Martha Ball agreed that it was “tribalism [here] for sure; everybody knows about it.” She said that in “the old comprehensive plan there was a health plan,” intended that was never developed.
Taking care of one another
Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Chaz Gross said he felt “honored to be here and humbled by all this.” He added, “I am amazed by this conversation. In my own family I lost a sibling to suicide. This is a long journey and you have wonderful resources here. This is how healing starts.”
He spoke of the community in which Roger Williams, the state’s founder, lived. Speaking of a woman that the early community rescued, Gross said, “They took care of her for the rest of her life. This is our Rhode Island tradition — to take care of each other.”
Someone reached out to me
Another visitor from the NAMI group was Rico Warren, who described himself as a recovering drug addict. He said the bottom line for him was fear: “Either you face everything and run or you face everything and recover.”
However, recovery cannot always be done alone, and Warren acknowledged that for him it became possible because “someone reached out to me.”
Break the code of silence
Police Chief Carlone said that strengthening the law enforcement response capability was very expensive. He said his department had already “hit the town with bigger and bigger bills.” He also decried the absolute silence of the community, noting when he had federal narcotics agents on island, “not one [drug] buy was made on island; this is a very closed community.” He added that tragedies often resulted from the same silence, pointing out, “Nobody stepped in to say this kid was seriously in trouble.”
Many people repeated that it was “important to break the code of silence.” Hopkins said she was horrified “to learn that Gregor’s friends had been partying at his grave.” Though many in the group thought it desecration, Crawford suggested it was “the grief and confusion of his friends and their misunderstanding of what they could do.”
Others suggested that youngsters with summer jobs here might have too much cash on hand, available too easily to buy drugs, which might create financial as well as chemical traps.
Sue Littlefield suggested three possible responses: 1) Town meetings like the current one to share ideas; 2) ongoing training for parents, including how to report to police; 3) Opportunities for teaching teens and adults how to do peer training: intervening with peers; getting help for your friends and reporting to police.
Nurse practitioner and film maker Sue Hagedorn offered to “make a short film that explores options for kids.” Elspeth Crawford suggested that each person at the meeting “go out and tell someone else what we’ve been doing for the last two hours.”
When Hollaway asked whether there was a specific next step, Carlone said, “While this traction is going, let’s keep up the momentum.” Most of the group agreed it was important to bring in parents and young people. “Ask them,” one person said, “to ask ‘How can we save our friends?’”
Hollaway thanked everyone for attending the meeting. “I’m touched to hear everyone at the table.” He recounted an exchange between two pastors when the younger asked his mentor for “a word of advice” to carry with him on going back to Africa. He was told, “Always remember that each person you see is sitting next to his or her own pool of tears.” Hollaway said he felt each member of the community group was sitting “next to a pool of tears.” He added, “I hope it can be a transition to action.”